It Can Be Illegal To Be Polite
INTERVIEW EDGE • OCT 1991
Interviewing the disabled will get considerable more attention as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) takes effect in July of 1992. The response we are getting to this topic as we preview what's coming in our diversity interviewer training suggests most employees will face an uncomfortable notion that they must forget the idea that it is best (because it is polite) to ignore the disability of someone who is obviously physically handicapped.
The ADA is focused on the elimination of barriers to employment. Some of us think this refers to physical access, like wheelchair ramps, rest room facilities, etc. But that is not all. Attitudes of employers may also be considered barriers.
If you interview a candidate with an obvious disability for over a half hour and the disability never comes up, the applicant will assume you are just going though the motions of conducting an interview. Giving token interviews will be viewed as an attitude about disabilities that is a barrier to employment.
I experienced the discomfort of this recently in a seminar I delivered. For the first time in my career, I found a blind participant and her guide dog in my all-day program. Fortunately the client told me in advance that this would be the case. With time to think about it and prepare, I decided to acknowledge her in the very beginning of the program as representing someone I could learn from. Further, I asked for her understanding if, during the course of the program, I used statements like" "Look at this situation" or "do you see what I mean?" I explained my intention was not to exclude her from the program content, but it was necessary to acknowledge in advance that I had a lot of habitual ways of talking that in her case might sound exclusionary.
What struck me from this experience and other occasions where I have encountered someone with an obvious disability is how easy it is for me to ignore the disability because I have been told it is the polite thing to do.
With the advent of the ADA, interviewers must not ignore obvious physical disabilities. Instead, they must explore with the candidate how their disability can be accommodated on the job. With a visually-impaired candidate, say: "This job requires recording notes from customer conversations. How would you handle that part of the job?"
While it is important to acknowledge obvious disabilities, the focus of the interview should be on what the job involves, not the disability of the applicant. All questions should be job-related. If you react more to the handicap than the person, you are also in violation of the ADA.